In Conversation with Rob Wainwright

Rob Wainwright has been the Director of Europol since 2009. Prior to joining Europol, Wainwright worked with a number of national agencies in the UK including MI5, where he specifically focused on issues of terrorism. Wainwright’s presentation, just weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris by suspected Islamic State extremists, touched on the organizational roles and responsibilities of Europol, particularly relating to counterterrorism; the fluid and fluctuating nature of the international terrorist threat; and the troubling (or confounding) issues relating to terrorist and criminal organizations’ use of the “dark web.” The CCW interview below expands on these central themes. 

Rob Wainwright speaking at the CCW in December 2015

Rob Wainwright speaking at the CCW in December 2015

CCW: Your earlier presentation drew the distinction between how IS (in particular) might be shifting operations from one of low profile (individual acts, perhaps not centrally organized) to a more organized structure. Presumably that makes them easier to track, is this the case?

Rob Wainwright: Exactly, we’re just trying to figure out now how eight or nine, maybe 10 members of a network could successfully carry out that attack in Paris. When you’ve got those sorts of numbers —that degree of planning of attack— normally we would expect our services to pick that up. So, indeed, the more people involved, the easier it should be —in theory— to identify and stop them. But,  IS’s particular technological capabilities  are such that they may have evolved in a way to elude identification, as in the way in which it seems like they’ve deliberately  hidden some of their movements as part of the migration crisis. It   shows a level of thinking that is,  maybe not of a different order (compared to AQ) , but there is some degree of intensive planning that strikes as different. 

CCW: A decade ago, much of our conversations about tracking terrorism is a presumption that groups would “go under” —eliminate technology as a part of their planning routine so as to avoid detection. With ISIS, is seems like they have harnessed this technology and scaled up smarter. Is this what we are seeing with ISIS?

RW: What we’re seeing is a scaling up of the use of social media, mainly as a  propaganda and recruitment instrument, and not only as a communication tool.. So, in that sense, the terrorist model has gone from the broadcast model —i.e. one person to many— such as we saw with Al Qaeda and the Inspire Magazine in the Arab peninsula for example, to multiple to multiple distribution, which is creating a new level of communication and activity which, by its very nature is resilient and productive. How they communicate in the network is yet to be fully explained. As we’re seeing this now, It is a very large community, very different to Al Qaeda, comprised of generally unconnected independent actors — 5,000 or 10,000 from Europe — who are encouraged to work as a lone actor against a target, rather than the command and control infrastructure that we saw around AQ and 9/11. Individuals are encouraged to take their own initiative under specific incitements such as “go out and shoot a police man” or “go out and kill someone in uniform.” But what does Paris tell us? It’s kind of a hybrid model between the two. Because, in the end, it was a network that was acting in concert and as a result of a significant degree of planning. . Definitely a deliberate shift in IS to take their jihad onto the global stage, we’re which is the threatening part for all of us. Paris was a clear statement of intent, as indeed downing the Russian jet was, and we know that they are backed by serious capability. That is a serious threat. 

CCW: How many of these terrorists plots are discovered and foiled? When in the planning to they typically are discovered? How effective is the intelligence gathering to discover such activities? 

RW: These plans can be smoked out at different stages. In some cases, early in the process, in others at the 11th hour. Thelatter was the case in  Verviers in Belgium in early 2015, where they were definitely planning something, or even in the Paris investigation where [Abdelhamid] Abaaoud —the suspected mastermind behind the Paris attacks— who was probably planning an attack for the next day on the business sector of Paris. I think a great proportion of them are still stopped in time. And, of course, the public doesn’t see most of that. I think the numbers are pretty high, seven or eight each year in the United Kingdom. That is a lot. But given the scale of the foreign fighter network, the fragmented nature of the intelligence, and given this increasing blurriness between crime and terrorist activity, we can’t reduce the threat to zero. We can’t stop every attack. I know it is a cliché, but it’s also a fact. There will be another one. 

CCW: You identified a number of criminal spaces where there is some overlap? Are there certain sectors or practices where Europol has identified significant overlap between criminal and terrorist organizations?

RW: The obvious one is cyberspace, as a means by which to hide your identity and communications and firearms, is the second, and a clear one in Europe. IS are  clearly sourcing the firearms through the criminal underworld. Financing is more difficult to say, compared to previous and other groups where there is a clear use of criminal activity as a source of funding. And the way the money is laundered, through financial hubs and some money laundering fixers, have also been shared connection. Regarding people smuggling, there seems to be some evidence now, there might be a link in this case, but it’s important not to exaggerate the significance of this yet, I’m not sure there is a systematic connection between these two processes. 

CCW: Given the breadth, depth and complexity of the “dark web,” do you feel law enforcement is narrowing the information gap —becoming more aware of the number and types of activities facilitated by this medium?

RW: We know it is expanding, because up to a point it is out there for everyone to explore. Anyone can go on the dark web —including police authorities— so we can see what is happening very often, the point is we don’t know who is behind it. We have been on the biggest marketplaces and see what is offered to the public —I talked about the Amazon-style offers to engage in this criminal marketplace (i.e. ready and packaged services for cyber-attacks, for instance). We can see the scale of these services, but we can’t see the number of orders being processed or where they are going.. 

CCW: To take the next step and connect these activities with perpetrating individuals, what needs to happen? Is this a technological obstacle or a political/legal obstacle? 

RW: It is both. But the technological solution is likely there, or can be found, within the tech sector in California, for instance. But we really need the political will to do so. Without a doubt.

This interview was conducted by Adam McCauley for Oxford’s Changing Character of War Programme.